KIMS Periscope No. 315
AUSTRALIA’S SUBMARINE FORCE, A COMPLEX HISTORY
PhD Candidate, Paris Catholic University
Submarines in Australia, a recent story
Following a flurry of publications regarding the AUKUS deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, one topic in particular has rarely been spoken about which seems strange if one wants to understand the broader picture: Australia’s submarine history. Australia is indeed not a new but still rather recent player in the submarine world in comparison to other countries and its initial industrial base, relative remoteness and scarcely populated territory didn’t make the country a natural location player in that very costly and resource consuming domain.
Australia’s very first capacity began in the 1960s with the acquisition of the Oberon class, a vessel measuring 90 meters for a displacement of 2400 tons and a crew of 70 personnel, which was designed in the United Kingdom and built in Scotland. This class comprised 6 submarines commissioned as follows: HMAS Oxley (1967), Otway (1968), Ovens (1969), Onslow (1969), Orion (1977), and Otama (1978). The actual Collins-class comprises 6 units too but it was designed and built in Australia and its construction started in 1990 at the ASC shipyard in Adelaide with the different submarines commissioned between 1996 and 2003. The Collins-class is an improved and longer version of the Swedish Kochum’s Västergötland mini-submarine (from 48 to 74 m, and from 1100~ tons to 3100-3400 tons), operable by a reduced crew of 50 personnels.
The Collins class was supposed to put Australia on the map as an independent country in terms of technical and technological development of complex weapon systems. It was a rather ambitious and complex endeavor for a country that didn’t have a military-industrial complex to speak of and an experience limited to designing and producing small watercrafts and maintaining the Oberon-class submarines. This forced the country to acquire many components and bring in expertise from abroad over the entire duration of the project with the aim to become self-sustaining. Also, the choice of basing the design of the Collins on a mini submarine was made to adapt the government’s ambition to the reality of the country’s industrial capacities but it didn’t impeach the Collins-class to be rigged with technical problems from the design phase to the operation and maintenance phases. Indeed, the engineers have been facing problems with welding, noise emission, propulsion, mast and periscope, combat system, etc. So much so that less than 25 years after the first submarine was commissioned (expected to operate for 30 years), the entire fleet was deemed out of potential and technical issues still making headlights on a regular basis. Prior to the AUKUS deal, Australian authorities thought they could only be maintained for one last period of 7 years but the need to keep them at sea until early 2040s will require extensive modernization and an ever costlier and complex maintenance for the navy.
In comparison, the French Barracuda “Attack-class” submarine deal was expected to deliver 8 (number later raised to 12, with a modified design) stealthy and high endurance diesel submarines, particularly adapted to Australia’s strategic needs and long-time opposition to the nuclear technology, all for €56 bn or near $100 bn AUD with first delivery planned from early 2030s up to the 2050s. Given that the design, production & maintenance of the 6 Collins class submarine was the only previous indigenous experience and limited to diesel-engine propulsion, the contract with Naval Group was an opportunity for Australia to increase its experience, expertise, and industrial capacity as well as to ensure a large level of strategic autonomy. Instead, the cancellation of the contract with Naval Group in September 2021 induced a compensation of €555 million, a loss of $3,4b AUD in initial investment, and seven years of technical, technological, and industrial cooperation.
An almost non-existent nuclear industry and powerful anti-nuclear public opinion
Following the announcement of the AUKUS deal, questions have been raised in specialized publications regarding the choice of a nuclear propulsion system for the AUKUS-class submarines, the planned acquisition of Virginia-class submarines, and the upcoming reinforced presence of both Astute and Virginia-class submarines in the waters of Australia. They are not without reasons. First of all, there is a long time opposition of the public in Australia to any kind of nuclear activity; In addition, a nuclear industry and expertise is totally absent in the country; Thirdly, it was Australia that initially requested to have a diesel version of the French Barracuda submarine; and finally, the nearest partners of Australia, aside from New-Zealand and French Polynesia, is the association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, a group of countries fundamentally opposed to the presence of vessels propelled or armed with nuclear devices. By the way, a treaty was signed in 1995 in Bangkok to form the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and Australia has been heavily criticized for its choice not only by the signatories of that treaty but also, unsurprisingly, by China.
Despite Australia’s opposition to the use of nuclear technology and a virtual ban in all seven states, the country remains an important producer and exporter of uranium ore and has a long history with natural uranium. In fact, uranium was found in Australia since the 1890s but it was initially extracted in 1906 at Radium Hill as a by-product of radium mining that was then sought after for medical use. Australia possesses rich uranium deposits, it has been exploiting and will keep exploiting it in the future, but solely for electrical power generation or nuclear research abroad, under very strict guidelines from the IAEA. . Exploitation of uranium deposits has taken place or is taking place in most federal states with active mines located at Mulga rock (Western Australia), Olympic Dam, Beverly and Four Mile (South Australia) and untapped uranium deposits are located in Yeelirie, Manyingee, Oobagooma, Kintyre and Lake Maitland (Western Australia), Mount Gee and Honeymoon (South Australia), Bigrlyi, Angelan, Mount Fitch, and Koongarra (Northern territories). New South Wales has deposits but never experienced operating mines while Victoria State and Tasmania have neither proven deposit or past and current mining activity.
Every year, Australia exports an average of 7000 tons of uranium ore, about 12% of the world production. OECD and IAEA estimate that Australia possesses 35% of the world’s uranium resource reserves (1,748,100 tons). In stark contrast with this generous concentration of uranium, Australia doesn’t have a single nuclear power plant and does not store any nuclear material except for medical isotopes with the Lucas Heights research reactor (Australian light water reactor / OPAL) being the only nuclear facility in the entire country. In the same fashion, Australia enters the AUKUS deal with no nuclear industry, very little pool of national nuclear experts, limited defense industrial capacities, and a global ban on nuclear energy. Paradoxically, this choice was made after refusing an initial proposal from France for nuclear powered submarines that were not deemed to allow for nuclear proliferation (very low enriched uranium) in favor of a solution that is directly interpreted by its neighbors as allowing for nuclear proliferation (military grade uranium).
An uncertain and complex way ahead
But nuclear technology is not the only problem on sight. The industrial aspect of the deal is also worthy of attention. As stated before, the initial class of Oberon submarines were being maintained at ASC shipyard in Adelaide and it is the same shipyard that the Collins-class has been built and maintained. It was specified, following the announcement of the AUKUS deal, that the future AUKUS-class submarines would be built in Adelaide from the 2040s, more or less 40 years after the last Collins was produced, and with only the expected last modernization of the Collins to maintain and transfer the know-how in between the two classes, a situation likely to generate a significant loss of competence, delays, additional cost, and the same technical issues that Adelaide faced with the Collins-class all along its service life, but with more complexity due to the ventilation of the project between Great Britain, Australia and the United States. In addition, going for a much larger class of submarines will generate the need to improve and enlarge Perth’s shipyard capacities at a cost estimated to $4,3 bn and another $1,5 bn to adapt nearby Henderson naval base.
In fact, several technical and political issues lay ahead. First, modernizing and maintaining the Collins over an additional period of fifteen years will prove a real challenge. Second, the Virginia class’s current programme for the US Navy is far from finished and with diminished submarine production capacity, more and more intense US-China rivalry and the need for more ships, it seems unlikely that the United States would spare three and even more five of their most recent submarine model (between $2 bn USD and $3,5 bn USD each). Third, how do you build a consistent submarine policy with 4 different models (Collins, Astute, Virginia and AUKUS-class)? And how do you train and transfer crews and officers from one class to another? As a reminder, the AUKUS improved visit and onboarding program is expected to start in 2023 but the permanent positioning of submarines will not take place before 2027 at best while the Virginia-class deal is supposed to be in action in 2032 with a first delivery for late 2030s and the SSN-AUKUS in early 2040s. Fourth, The AUKUS deal will take place between 2023 and the 2050s, which represents thirty-five years or nine US presidential terms! What would happen if during the initial period (from 2023 to 2032) a Trump-like US President decided to scrap the whole deal? Fifth, another problem has to do with the personnel of these submarines. A Collins-class has a crew of fifty while a Virginia has a crew of one hundred and thirty-five – transitioning crew from six Collins to a Virginia + SSN + AUKUS option would require recruiting, training and securing a skilled workforce that might prove hard to find or to bring and maintain in a sparsely populated western Australia.
Even if we put aside these major problems, still remains the question of the cost of the entire program, which is projected to reach between $268 and 368 bn between the 2020s and the 2050s for three to five US-built Virginia-class submarines and around eight SSN-AUKUS submarines (vs $100 bn AUD for Naval Group’s 12 diesel-electric attack submarines, probably $150 bn AUD if they had been designed with a nuclear propulsion). And the final question is: What is Australia’s plan in all this? What does the country gain out of this? Waste of precious time and money, damage caused to its relationship with France (in parallel to Australia’s decision regarding the Tiger and NH90 helicopters) and ASEAN, continued tensions with China, a lengthy and costly hazardous project with little to no strategic autonomy in sight and probably no potential market for export. Also, a submarine fleet that seems totally disproportionate compared to national defense needs, hardly sustainable financially, technically, and technologically and out of touch with the nuclear dimension. For the same amount of money, Australia could have afforded much larger, ambitious, and feasible goals. It could have acquired an entire fleet of twelve low-enriched nuclear-propelled Barracuda submarines, entirely built in Australia, compatible with its national nuclear policy, in line with its ASEAN neighbors, while still have enough budget for a significant increase and modernization of the nation’s surface fleet (including the acquisition of helicopter/aircraft carriers – for the F35), help modernizing all of Southern Pacific Island countries and to boost Australia’s diplomacy, notably in the economic and infrastructure dimensions.
As we just witnessed, so many issues can affect the whole AUKUS deal, either politically, economically, technically, diplomatically, at the national stage but also in either Great Britain or the United States of America. Many options are available and acquiring nuclear submarines is just one of them. The AUKUS deal should not be the Alpha and Omega for Australia and now that it seems too late to back down, only future will tell if Australia was right, but a bumpy road ahead seems guaranteed.
Benjamin Blandin is an associate researcher at YCAPS and PhD student in geopolitics at the Paris Catholic University. He was a Senior Consultant in strategy at Airbus Defence and Space and consulting firms such as Accenture, Deloitte and Capgemini. He graduated from Lyon Business School (EM Lyon) in strategy consulting, University Paris II (ISAD) in geostrategy and Paris 8 (IFG) in geopolitics. Benjamin Blandin is a former auditor of the Paris Military Academy (IHEDN) and Naval Academy (CESM).
- Kathryn Armstrong, Frances Mao & Tom Housden, “Aukus deal: US, UK and Australia agree on nuclear submarine project,” The BBC News March 13, 2023.
- Franco Ordoñez, “Biden is selling U.S. nuclear submarines to Australia to counter China,” March 13, 2023.
- john Grady, “Australia’s First Nuclear Submarine Could Be a Reality in Less Than 30 Years, Former PACOM Commander Testifies” February 7, 2023.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS.